The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, commonly referred to as NASA, was the most advanced human government space agency throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. NASA was responsible for humanity's earliest major breakthroughs in space technology, accomplished the first manned landings across the Sol system, and paved the way for human dominance in space.
During the mid-twentieth century, clashing ideologies and two World Wars resulted in the most major superpowers of Earth at the time, the United States and United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), to be locked in a fierce rivalry known as the Cold War.
In the year 1957 CE, the USSR launched humanity's first satellite, Sputnik 1, into low Earth orbit. Although Sputnik was harmless, a crisis ravaged the United States. Americans were terrified of the idea that in the near future the USSR could just as easily launch nuclear weapons into space. To prevent the USSR gaining an advantage over them, the United States created their own agency to research the possibilities of space exploration. Thus, in 1959 NASA was born.
Supersonic Aircraft (1950's)
Prior to NASA, the United States operated the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) for primarily military purposes during the first and second World Wars. Near the end of its lifetime, NACA developed the earliest iterations of supersonic aircraft. One of NACA's final aircraft was the X-15 rocket plane, and after NACA was disbanded, NASA ran the X-15 through its first tests. These tests reached heights up to 108 kilometers and developed the earliest human spacesuit and spacecraft technologies.
The USSR saw the founding of NASA as a challenge to their technological capabilities. Known as the Space Race, immediately the USSR and United States began a lengthy and expensive competition to out-do each other in space accomplishments. After a decade of work, NASA became the "victor" of the Space Race after they became the first to land humans on Luna. To accomplish this task, NASA progressed through three programs: Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.
Mercury (1959-1962 CE)
In 1959 CE, NASA began the Mercury program, and its objective was to launch Americans into space as soon as possible and at the lowest cost available. That year, seven United States Air Force pilots were selected to become the nation's first astronauts. In 1961 CE, the first manned Redstone rocket was launched with astronaut Alan Shepherd inside the Friendship 7 capsule. The first orbital flight of the Mercury program launched in 1962 CE. Onboard the Mercury-Atlas rocket, inside was John Glenn, and he completed three full orbits of Earth. After Glenn, three more orbital missions were launched, the longest of which was led by Gordon Cooper with a total of 22 orbits.
Despite these accomplishments, the United States was falling short of the USSR. By 1962, the USSR had already launched four manned spacecraft, two of which, Vostok 3 and 4, had performed an orbital rendezvous with only a separation of four kilometers. In response, President John Kennedy issued a bold statement challenging NASA to land Americans on Luna before the end of the 1960's and before the USSR could do so. In his words,
"President Pitzer, Mr. Vice President, Governor, Congressman Thomas, Senator Wiley, and Congressman Miller, Mr. Webb, Mr. Bell, scientists, distinguished guests, and ladies and gentlemen...Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it--we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.
"There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?
"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."
Gemini (1961-1966 CE)
Now with a clear goal, NASA took larger steps towards more advanced space technology. After the Mercury program ended successfully, the Gemini program was initiated in 1961 CE. Gemini's goal was to develop long-duration spaceflight technology, perfect orbital rendezvous techniques, and master precision landing. The first manned Gemini flight, Gemini 3, launched in 1965 with astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young. Nine missions followed in the next two years. Some milestones were a 14-day endurance flight, the first-ever American EVA, and the first docking in history.
Apollo (1961-1972 CE)
NASA's final program before their first landing on Luna was the Apollo moon program. Apollo, which started simultaneously with Gemini in 1961, introduced the Saturn rockets. Originally the Saturn rocket was planned to be used for the United States military, but instead, it was adapted for the Apollo program. NASA's first mission to Luna was Apollo 8, which launched in 1968. Humans first landed on Luna in 1969 during the famous Apollo 11 mission, and it marked the first of six total landings on Luna before the last returned to Earth in 1972. Thus, it appeared the United States had "won" the space race.
Space Shuttle Missions (1971-2011 CE)
NASA's next large program was the Space Shuttle program, which began in 1972 CE, and the focus of the program was re-usability in spacecraft. The four iconic Space Shuttles of Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis were built. In 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger was lost, and Endeavor was built as a replacement. In 2003, a second disaster destroyed Columbia. Overall, the Shuttles accumulated 135 flights before the end of the program in 2011. The Space Shuttle's most famous missions included the launch and repair of the first Hubble Space Telescope and the transport of Spacelab.
International Space Station (1998-2020CE)
1993 CE began NASA's International Space Station project. Originally NASA intended to lead the Space Station Freedom program independently, but budget restrictions forced NASA to combine Freedom with Russia's Mir-2 project. After the International Space Station began construction that year, more space agencies such as Japan's JAXA, Europe's ESA, and Canada's CSA joined the program. Eventually, a total of 17 nations contributed, and the final module of the ISS was added in 2011 by Space Shuttle Discovery. After the Space Shuttle program ended, Russia's Soyuz rockets became the only rocket to transport astronauts to the ISS until the Space Launch System. Years later, the private space company SpaceX began using their Dragon capsules to transport supplies.
Initially the ISS was planned to be deorbited in 2022 CE, but plans for manned interplanetary missions made it impossible for NASA to build a new space station. So, the ISS was kept in orbit and was planned to be repaired every two years until further notice. It continues to orbit Earth under the name of Space Station Alpha.
While the Space Shuttle and International Space Station were impressive feats, NASA still longed to explore new worlds beyond Earth. NASA unveiled the "Journey to Mars" campaign, a series of proposed missions, which, when done correctly and on schedule, would land humans on Mars in the 2030's and establish the first deep space colonies.
Orion (2005-2025 CE)
Orion's objective was to land at least a dozen astronauts on Luna by 2025 CE. While Orion actually began in 2005, the Orion capsule, the first of several parts of the full Orion spacecraft, was not built until 2014. That year the capsule underwent its first successful in-space test. In 2020, NASA completed the rest of the Orion spacecraft. The unmanned Orion I mission was launched in 2021 and performed a fly-by encounter of Luna. The first manned mission was Orion II, which entered low Luna orbit and scanned the Sea of Clouds for future landing sites. In 2023, NASA built Artemis, the first of three Luna landers. Artemis was launched in 2024 during Orion VI, the first Orion mission to land on Luna. Only one mission was lost, Orion VIII, which ended tragically with a heat shield failure.
Hermes (2025-2027 CE)
The landing of humans on Luna gained NASA the largest funding they had seen in decades. Thus, the Hermes program began sooner than expected in 2025 CE. Although at the surface Hermes' intention was to carry humans into interplanetary space for the first time and rendezvous with near-Earth asteroids, ultimately Hermes was to revolutionize old space technologies to be better suited for Mars missions. In total, there were three missions, the by far most famous being the Asteroid Redirect mission, otherwise known as Hermes II. Launched in 2026, the main spacecraft of the program, Maia, attached to a small asteroid on a collision course with Earth roughly ten meters in diameter. After hours of thrust, Maia nudged the asteroid out of the collision course and into a path that would simply cause the asteroid to pass by Earth unaffected. During the program, the first practical ion engine for large spacecraft was developed, humanity's most efficient solar panels were invented, and life support systems could reach a duration long enough for Mars.
Ares (2027-2039 CE)
The final leg of the "Journey to Mars" was Ares, and, obviously, the goal of Ares was to land humans on Mars. Ares began in 2027 CE with the first module of the program's sole spacecraft, the Aeolus, being launched in low Earth orbit. By the end of 2028, the entire spacecraft completed orbital construction. Roughly half the size of the International Space Station, up to that point in history Aeolus was the largest and most sophisticated spacecraft ever to fly. Originally, NASA planned to depart for Mars in 2031; however, preparations for the mission were completed prematurely, and, to avoid the risk of Aeolus being damaged while in orbit, Aeolus launched in 2029. On board were eight astronauts. Aeolus arrived at Mars late that year, and on December 18, American astronaut Laura Teller became the first human to set foot on Mars within the Holden crater. Six Ares missions followed until the end of the program in 2039.
Europa Clipper and Europan Bullet (2026-2039 CE)
In 2026 CE, NASA's detected the first trace of alien life within Europa. The discovery was made by the Europa Clipper's lander, Sarpedon. After touching down within the Thrace Macula region of Europa, Sarpedon deployed the first of its three small thermal drills. After burrowing around twenty meters below the surface, the drill performed a series of sampling tests on surrounding rock and ice. Soon after, the drill came into contact with organic molecules only possible due to active life. NASA deployed Sarpedon's other two drills, which reached depths of thirty-five and forty meters. As predicted, the drills discovered that the further deeper into the surface they burrowed, the more organics were present.
With humanity on the verge of discovering alien life, the United States Congress granted NASA $4 billion to launch a larger Europa lander that would be capable of drilling as deep as 100 kilometers. NASA began construction of the Europan Bullet lander in 2029, but very quickly several implications were found. Drilling technology was not advanced enough to dig as deep as projected, and to develop such a technology would exceed NASA's given budget. To solve this problem, NASA partnered with ESA, JAXA, and many other private space companies. A few nations, such as Canada, Russia, and China, also provided funding and resources for the project.
The Europan Bullet completed construction in 2032 and was launched the following year. The Bullet arrived at Europa and made a successful landing in 2039. The drills were deployed shortly after, and since the they were directly connected to the Bullet's power source, the drills operated for months. After five weeks, the first of the two drills finally broke through the thickest portion of Europa's outer crust and began to burrow through the warmer, less dense ice of the inner crust. The drill made rapid progress, and a week later, the drill, at last, reached liquid water.
A sampling of the water revealed objects similar to cells. After putting the cells through a series of tests, it was deduced that these cells were, in fact, alive. A few days afterward, the second drill reached Europa's ocean. Unlike its counterpart, this drill carried auditory and video equipment. Engaging its underwater floodlamp, the drill began to capture high-resolution images and video. Immediately visible was a vast variety of sea-life, such as large, slender eels and intricate bioluminescent jellyfishes. After a few hours of recording, the camera detected a pod of massive whale-like creatures being attracted by the drill's floodlamp. However, the whales appeared to express intrigue, not fear, of the drill. Audio clips recorded the whales communicating a vast assortment of rapid, high-pitched screeches and clicks far more complex than any regular animal could produce.
NASA suspected these whales were intelligent creatures, and a means of communication was devised. By toggling the floodlamp on and off, the drill relayed the first ten prime numbers. Incredibly, the whales not only returned the ten prime numbers they had been given, but they also returned the next six. Seeing this, it was obvious the whales were intelligent. However, knowledge of the discovery the public was disclosed two years later.
Space Revolution (2040-2100 CE)
Up until this point in history, space exploration was limited to only an elite few. This began to change in the 2040's CE, however. Known as the Space Revolution, major advancements in space technology allowed regular people to explore space without government intervention. Furthermore, government agencies such as NASA landed humans in the furthest reaches of the Sol system, established many permanent colonies and space stations, developed means of traveling faster than the speed of light, and brought space exploration to the public.
Kuiper Belt Exploration Program (2045-2080 CE)
NASA was one of many participants in the Kuiper Belt Exploration Program (KBEP), a massive effort led by several space companies to land humans in the outer Sol system. The program launched several successful manned and unmanned exploration and colonization missions to Pluto, Eris, Makemake, Haumea and Sedna. Due to the KBEP's accomplishments, humanity began to have a permanent presence across the entire system.
Perhaps NASA's greatest innovation was the warp drive. During the early years of the Kuiper Belt Exploration Program, NASA longed for a faster means of space travel. A research program was created, but the effort was a mess due to a lack of political support. For the first two years of the study, NASA researched fusion propulsion, but since the then-current technology was nowhere near adequate, progress was discontinued. NASA put efforts toward ion, solar, and pulsed plasma propulsion over the next four years, but none provided quality results.
In 2051 CE, German scientist Dr. Eckhard Brestrich approached NASA with compelling evidence that confirmed warp drive technology could work. NASA agreed to cooperate with Brestrich in the development of the warp drive. Many other space companies, primarily SpaceX and Boeing, also supported the project.
Initial progress was extremely slow. Even at the time, faster than light travel remained as a far-off notion, and the idea weighed the project down since many involved in the development disbelieved themselves the warp drive could be created in their lifetimes. However, a breakthrough arrived in 2054. Using thousands of nanoplates, NASA successfully magnified the Casimir effect to very slightly accelerate a small satellite in high Earth orbit. Technology improved dramatically, and soon spacecraft were equipped with millions of nanoplates at a time to produce a stronger effect.
In 2058, NASA completed construction of humanity's first manned spacecraft equipped with a semi-powerful warp drive: the IXS Enterprise. The Enterprise was highly experimental, and months were spent to completely examine the spacecraft for any flaws. No errors were uncovered, and the first live test was given a date. On January 1, 2059, the first crew of the Enterprise arrived onboard. A few hours later, the Enterprise engaged its warp drive and vanished from ground-based viewers. The Enterprise returned to Earth 26 hours later. The Enterprise's warp drive exceeded expectations by achieving speeds of 90 times faster than light and reaching the Oort cloud.
Interstellar Exploration and Terraforming of the Sol System
The IXS Enterprise's success was a surprise, and after the mission returned to Earth, NASA canceled decades' worth of plans to initiate humanity's first interstellar exploration programs. Since NASA was eager to enter as many as possible, exploration programs of a single star system rarely lasted for more than a few years. However, the three most significant programs in the sense of accomplishments were Vagi, Emer, and Luhman, which explored the Alpha Centauri, Barnard's Star, and Luhman 16 systems, respectively. The programs accumulated over a dozen manned landings across seven worlds, launched over thirty crews beyond Sol, and established two extrasolar space stations and one colony.
Meanwhile, a boom in Earth population led to a crisis, and thousands were seeking refuge. In response, NASA partnered with Terragen Corporation to begin the terraforming of the Sol system. In 2039, Mars began its own terraforming; but, it was only planned to last a few decades, yet after the crisis Mars' terraforming was reworked to sustain a global population. NASA and Terragen also turned to terraforming Venus and eventually Ganymede. However, the method of terraforming at the time is archaic in comparison to modern techniques, and thus, no world was ready for colonization until centuries later.
Private Space Exploration
At first, NASA granted usage of their warp drive to closely-partnered space agencies, but since the public demanded to have their own warp drives, NASA released a commercial version to the market. Thousands of units were sold in the months following. Now realizing the potential to make a profit on space technology, major engineering firms unveiled privatized spacecraft compatible with the commercial warp drive. As expected, the spacecraft were very popular.
During all this, however, government policies around Earth prohibited private individuals from leaving Earth's atmosphere. In fact, during the commercialization of space technology, the United Nations compelled all major nations to ban private space exploration in the sake of public safety and security. However, believing all people had the right to explore their solar system, NASA avidly argued against these policies. NASA-sent representatives spoke with global leaders and argued in legislature about repealing the act. NASA's most significant movement against the exploration ban came when NASA addressed the nations of Earth during a 2062 United Nations meeting. As spoken by the chairman of NASA,
"President Leeroy, leaders, representatives of the world...The people must control space, not the government...Is it not a birth-given right in every civilized nation that all men and women have the liberty to travel freely? How are we to accept the private exploration of our planet, but not of space?
"[There has been] much speculation on whether humans are capable of a founding a private-powered Universe. [To] that, I argue we are far more able now than any other time before us. Our technology allows us, as evidenced by the colonies on Luna, Mars, Venus, and manned landings of Pluto and Haumea. But most importantly, the people are prepared. In their first year of availability, over ten-thousand commercial warp drives and spacecraft were sold, and now the public demands larger, more advanced technology.
"When the Old World traversed the Atlantic to colonize America, ordinary people were given the privilege to start a new life in the colonies. Now, our world is dominated by the nations created by those same colonies. Space is no different. If we grant the people the right to explore the Universe, a new humanity will appear. New peoples, new cultures, and new governments...We are on the cusp of a much broader future."
NASA won the case, and the private space ban was lifted. Over the next decade, the private sector reached every corner of the Sol system, and notable organizations began operating on an interplanetary and interstellar scale.
As the public became more influential in space exploration, government operations such as NASA became unnecessary. By the 2080s CE, most colonies established by humanity were completely unaffiliated by Earth governments and declared independence. The public was exploring the Universe at a rate no organization could ever accomplish, and almost every other government space program was disbanded. NASA was not cut entirely, but in 2081 CE, almost eighty percent of resources granted to the agency was discontinued. NASA lasted nineteen years mostly in name until the formation of the URSS in 2100 CE merged all government space organizations into a single agency.